We encourage you to use social media not only to share animal gifs and keep up with your old high school friends, but to engage politically.

We might be talking politics, but how we do so matters.

Social media makes it easier for us to stay connected with people. This we know. But lots of us use these sites and apps for more than keeping up with friends.

Pew Research found that 66 percent of us engage in some kind of political activity on social sites, such as liking and sharing political content, sharing our views and belonging to political groups on these sites. And 61 percent of millennials get news about politics from Facebook.

As virtual spaces where so many people come together, social media carries a lot of potential to spread information, foster meaningful discussions and broaden perspectives. But whether that potential is fulfilled depends on a couple things.

How are we engaging politically on these sites? And to what kind of information are we exposing ourselves?

Terms of engagement: The spiral of silence

One thing to consider is when we choose to engage in discussions of a political nature. Communication researchers have long found that people are less likely to talk politics if they don’t think the people around them already agree with them; this is called the “spiral of silence.” Does social media interrupt the spiral?

Of course, the answer varies from person to person. But Pew did an interesting study using the 2013 controversy over Edward Snowden as a sample issue to see if the spiral trend carries over to social media. Researchers asked people in what situations they would be willing to talk about the issue.

Only half as many people who were willing to discuss Snowden in person were willing to discuss him on social media sites. Surprisingly, the researchers found that regular Facebook use actually made people less willing to talk about the issue even outside social media: daily Facebook users were half as likely to talk about it in person. And in both settings, people were more likely to engage in conversation if they believed those around them agreed with their views.

In this study, then, not only did social media not avoid the spiral; it may have propelled it downward.

The echo chamber

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with talking to people with whom we agree. But if that’s all we do, are we getting anywhere?

Most people do get exposed to views that differ from their own on Facebook – a good three-quarters, according to Pew. But the numbers look very different when you factor in ideology. When people identify as “consistently” liberal or conservative, the opinions they are exposed to and the opinions of those with whom they have conversations become narrower.

Consider the following:

  • 47 percent of consistent conservatives and 32 percent of consistent liberals mostly see political posts with which they agree
  • 66 percent of consistent conservatives and 52 percent of consistent liberals said that most of their close friends agree with them politically
  • Half of consistent conservatives and 31 percent of consistent liberals mostly talk politics only with people with whom they agree
  • Consistent liberals are more likely than any other group to block, unfriend or unfollow someone because of a political post with which they disagree (24 percent)

It’s probably not shocking that people tend to be friends with people who agree with them on certain things, and that people like talking to people with whom they agree. But let’s think about what impact this can have on political engagement.

"We’re not really doing ourselves or our causes any favors if we isolate ourselves among the like-minded."

We’re not really doing ourselves or our causes any favors if we isolate ourselves among the like-minded. We might be missing out on valuable perspectives and information that could improve our understanding of the world, specific issues and one another. And preaching to the choir is not a very good way to get anything done.

But it’s hard to engage with those with whom we disagree for lots of reasons. It’s kinda scary to put yourself out there, to risk upsetting someone and to risk getting upset with others.

This is where I find political theorist, and overall intellectual badass, Hannah Arendt to be really helpful. She’s inspired me to think of political engagement differently, to be braver when it comes to speaking my mind and to be more open to diverse perspectives. Maybe she’ll inspire you, too.

Arendt’s spiel

When Arendt wrote about politics, she meant more by that word than what we usually think. It’s not just about policies, bills, issues and candidates. It’s about getting together with our fellow human beings, showing them who we are and seeing who they are, in order to create something new. There’s a dual openness this requires – both opening ourselves up to others who are different than we are and being open about ourselves to them.

This takes courage, Arendt said – to expose who we are and where we’re coming from, and to throw our thoughts and opinions into a world in which we can’t be certain of what will result from them.

It also takes a certain spirit of forgiveness – being open to people making mistakes, and a willingness to give them the opportunity to correct them. (Basically, no more call-out culture, please.)

We can’t really participate in politics as Arendt describes it if we isolate ourselves within the echo chamber of the like-minded. This type of political engagement requires different perspectives. It requires, in essence, disagreement. Only then can anything new really come from our engagement – whether it’s some concrete result like drumming up support for a piece of legislation or something more intellectual, like gaining a new perspective on an issue.

If the goal is to create something new, we need people who aren’t already on the same page.

Our take

We encourage you to use social media not only to share animal gifs and keep up with your old high school friends, but to engage politically. And that involves exposing yourself to different ideas, opinions and sources of information.

Be brave, be civil and be open.

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Posted 03.10.2016 - 02:19 pm EST